Psalm 48. A quick heads-up. I should mention that what’s going on in Psalm 48 and 28 Main Rd, Tokai is a scandal. I’ll fill you in later.
You’ll need your trainers or hiking boots. No, no stilettos or platforms. We’re starting down in the valley and making our way up the steep slope. Yes, you’ll puff a bit, but it’s not Mount Kilimanjaro or Everest.
Once there, we’ll be counting towers. Okay, casting crowns if you like, but counting towers definitely. The tour takes in military fortifications—walls, battlements, citadels, ramparts, all solid stonework.
Where are we? It’s Mount Zion. You’re disorientated? You’re asking: “Isn’t Mount Zion the acropolis area of Jerusalem where the temple was built?”
But you’re pointing to a footnote that says—“Hebrew: ‘Mount Zion, on the sides of Zaphon’ [or, ‘the sides of the north’]”. But Zion isn’t a high mountain and is certainly not far north from David’s capital city, Jerusalem.
Look, don’t worry. It’s like this. The Israelite poet is praising Yahweh and in the process pushing Baal offstage. You see, the Canaanite god Baal—and Baal means ‘lord’—was a god of rain, thunder and lightning, and fertility. They believed that he had won a great battle and had had a temple built in his honour on a high mountain that is 30km up the coast from Ugarit in Syria. Ugarit was where a local temple of Baal and broken copies of the Baal myth inscribed on clay were found. Baal’s mountain was called Ṣapānu in Ugaritic, and as you can guess, that word slipped into Hebrew as ṣāpōn (Zaphon)—adopted as a logical word for ‘north’, as in north from Jerusalem.
Does your mind sometimes wander over the words when you’re singing hymns? Yes, I said ‘wander’, but if you ever sang that chorus Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised your mind either wandered or wondered. The chorus people sing in church is an unreconstructed paste-in from Psalm 48. If you ever turned up Psalm 48 before today and got further than ‘Great is the LORD!’, to v12–14, you’d find yourself being urged to:
“Walk about Zion, go all around it,
count its towers,
consider well its ramparts;
go through its citadels
that you may tell the next generation
that this is God,
our God forever and ever.
He will be our guide forever.” (ARSV)
Well, actually, you can’t do that counting now—even it you wanted to. Zion and its temple were smashed up long ago and any archaeological remains would be buried under meters of rubble and overbuild. You’ll have to imagine them as they were back then.
So, look. It’s as simple as this—Psalm 48 is ‘the scandal of particularity’, just like Jesus of Nazareth. The God of Israel, whose temple stood on the acropolis of Jerusalem, was the one true God. Our Psalm 48 poet knew that, and recognised its significance globally. This God had committed Himself in covenant to his Israelite worshipers. But Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Philistines, Canaanites, Babylonians and all the rest choked on this idea. One God, and not any of theirs at that, Israel’s God! This was a scandal.
So when this one true living God amped up His presence and covenant exclusively in Jesus of Nazareth, that’s a scandal to many today. But we go with the update, with Jesus as the unique witness to who is the God of all the Earth. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus tells Philip (John 14:9). Wow! You weren’t expecting that answer, Philip.
That’s the sandal—the scandal of particularity. This Jesus, born in Bethlehem, worked in Nazareth, baptised in the Jordan, preached around Galilee, crucified by the Romans. No one else.
I doubt that any member of TCC would write a poem urging us to count the overhead steel girders, big nuts and bolts, and the tension rods overhead in the converted garden centre warehouse where we worship. Yet we affirm—with the scandal of particularity—that when we gather here on Sundays under this very roof, we are welcomed into His presence by the love of God Himself, each time and on-goingly forever.
That tops counting the towers of Psalm 48!